Can Spirituality Survive Religion?

In an 1876 speech, “The Great AgnosticRobert G. Ingersoll said, “Religion should have the influence upon mankind that its goodness, that its morality, its justice, its charity, its reason, and its argument give it, and no more.” (Ingersoll, 14). In many ways, Dr. George E. Vaillant makes the same argument in his Spiritual Evolution. He suggests that today’s religions have survived, and will continue to survive, because of their emphasis on the positive emotions – which, according to Vaillant, are faith, forgiveness, hope, joy, love, and compassion. But, in today’s world, are religions, especially Christianity, which is the most dominant tradition in America, a significant enough source of positive emotions to justify their flaws?

To be clear, Vaillant does separate ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality.’ While generally defensive, if not fully sympathetic to religions, he does admit that “intolerant dogma … [and] religious beliefs have provided cultural justification for some of the most heinous and selfish human behavior ever committed” (Vaillant, 11). In his argument promoting spirituality, he addresses (but, as I will try to explain later, does not adequately answer) the question of why individuals seeking spiritual unity seem to so often lead to brutal institutions; he writes, “Sometimes in a quest for unity rather than community, religions forget to love their neighbors as themselves” (Vaillant, 79). He explains, “On the one hand, religion asks us to learn from the experiences of our tribe; spirituality urges us to savor our own experience. On the other hand, religion helps us to mistrust the experience of other tribes; spirituality helps us to regard the experience of the foreigner as valuable too” (Vaillant, 188). While “cults and religions tend to be authoritarian and imposed from without,” Vaillant argues, “[S]pirituality is more likely to be democratic and arise from within” (Vaillant, 189). While he clearly differentiates between the two, he notes that they often go hand-in-hand: “[T]he survival of the world’s greatest religions, relatively unchanged, for the last two thousand years has been due as much to their ritual emphasis on the positive emotions of faith, forgiveness, hope, joy, love, and compassion as to “guns, germs, and steel” or cancerlike memes” (Vaillant, 186).

Clearly, Vaillant recognizes that, for all the positive emotions that come with religion, religion also brings a significant amount of problems as well. So how do we tell the difference? Here’s where I find Vaillant’s argument problematic: “[T]he way to distinguish such unshakeable beliefs is to ask whether they are empathetic or paranoid” (Vaillant, 75). But, outside of his clear examples of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Hitler, the difference is rarely clear. Admittedly, he acknowledges, “The danger is that the line between self-soothing trust and self-soothing delusion is unclear” (Vaillant, 75).

Specifically regarding Christianity, Vaillant contrasts the “belief in religious dogma that led to the Spanish Inquisition” with the “faith in a man [Jesus] who spoke of what was in his heart and lived his message” (Vaillant, 66). But that idea is inherently flawed. If we truly take Jesus and his message seriously, it almost certainly leads to conflict. As professor Crane Brinton told Vaillant, “If you don’t believe your religion is the only religion, you have no religion” (Vaillant, 190). Sure, in many ways, Jesus and his followers, like most religions, have provided many benefits to the world, as Vaillant notes. But that doesn’t change the problematic fact that Christianity rests upon having the one true belief system. Jesus himself, in John 14:6, says “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Vaillant argues “[T]he danger is the lack of empathy and the false beliefs of those who profess faith,” but immediately before that he argues that “Faith … is not the danger.” (Vaillant, 79). But if your faith inherently suggests that, for example, Jesus is the only way to ‘the Father,’ it’s almost guaranteed that a lack of empathy will follow.

Especially problematic is how Vaillant defines faith, which, to him, “involves basic trust that the world has meaning and that loving-kindness exists” (Vaillant, 73). Not only is faith, as defined by Vaillant, possible without any blatantly anti-scientific and/or supernatural beliefs, but faith, in the more common sense, is defined as “firm belief in something for which there is no proof,” which often requires quite a different worldview. Indeed, many Christians believe in Hell, which is generally considered a place of suffering. According to many Christians, Jesus – and only Jesus – is the only way to be ‘saved’ from Hell. The belief that many people will suffer for all eternity for not accepting Jesus is hard to justify with the idea that spirituality is only about positive emotions. Furthermore, the belief that your religion – and only your religion – has the ‘Truth’ leads to more intolerance, making Vaillant’s argument especially unhelpful in today’s world. If you believe that someone you know is bound for eternal hell unless they convert to your religion, you obviously should want to help them get into heaven. Is that empathetic? After all, making people uncomfortable or even suffer – as is the case with the Spanish Inquisition – for a short time could arguably be justified if that short-term pain could save them for eternity. Clearly, the line between ‘empathy’ and ‘paranoia’ is almost never as clear as Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. While I have my reservations about Freud, his idea of religion as “a universal obsessional neurosis” seems especially useful, considering how arbitrary Vaillant’s distinction between ‘empathy’ and ‘paranoia’ is (Pals, 65).

In his support of spirituality, Vaillant writes, “[S]pirituality refers to the psychological experiences of religiosity/spirituality that relate to an individual’s sense of connection with something transcendent (be it a defined deity, truth, beauty, or anything else considered to be greater than self) and are manifested by the emotions of awe, gratitude, love, compassion, and forgiveness.” (Vaillant, 187). While in general I agree with his statement, I would argue that, again, “a defined deity,” in practice, is often incompatible with real tolerance and love. Oscar Wilde famously quipped in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “To define is to limit” (Wilde). This is especially true with defining deities – which, arguably, is what led to what we call religion today. Religion, according to Robert Bellah’s definition, “is a system of belief and practices relative to the sacred that unite those who adhere to them in a moral community” (Bellah, 3). Additionally, Durkheim, as noted by Bellah, defined “the sacred as something set apart or forbidden” (Bellah, 3). Similarly to how “writing created dogma as well as technological advance,” making certain ideas sacred – set apart or forbidden – inherently limits humanity’s pursuit of knowledge (Vaillant, 51). As Vaillant pointed out, a “major reason that many prefer science to religion is that the former is more ready to admit error,” since we think for ourselves rather than accepting something as the unquestionable truth of God (Vaillant, 205).

In the end, religion must be ruled out. Instead, we should embrace, as we already do, social play, which “is firmly based on a foundation of fairness” and seems to have helped humans develop a sort of justice, according to Marc Bekoff and Jessice Pierce (Bellah, 80-81). Not only do social bonds, especially parental care, provide us with our needs and safety, they also help us develop culture, history, morality, science, and literature (Bellah, 90). Play has reduced divisions and conflicts, while religion, which sprang from play, has often promoted divisions and conflicts.


Bellah, Robert N. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.

Ingersoll, Robert Green, and Tim Page. What’s God Got to Do with It?: Robert G. Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk, and the Separation of Church and State. Hanover, NH: Steerforth, 2005. Print.

Pals, Daniel L. Eight Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Vaillant, George E. Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway, 2008. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Modern Library, 1992. Print.


Recommended Readings (March 2014)

Every once in a while, I try to acknowledge some of the most interesting articles that I’ve read recently. (Feel free to check out my lists of recommendations from February 17thJune 20thJuly 28th and August 8th.) I’ve tried to recommend readings that are relatively timeless, with some from this month and some from sources from the past. I tried to include articles that are interesting or funny or thought-provoking or insightful or all of the above, but there’s no real methodology. Below, in no particular order, I’ve provided the links and some of my favorite quotes from the readings.

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Comparing & Contrasting American Evangelical Attitudes Toward Nature

As Dr. White pointed out, “When one speaks in such sweeping terms, a note of caution is in order. Christianity is a complex faith, and its consequences differ in differing contexts” (White, 3). While I recognize the impossibility of addressing every Christian’s views in all their complexities, I will examine two contrasting Christian views of the environment. In this essay, I will describe how the ‘dominion’ viewpoint and the Christian Stewardship viewpoint – which are both rooted in Scripture – are radically different.

First off, I will examine how the dominion viewpoint developed in Christianity and how it contrasted with other religious’ views of the environment. The idea that humanity has dominion over all other species is taken from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. White explains, “Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes. And, although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image” (White, 2). The view that mankind has dominion over all of God’s other creations is arguably the most dominant view of the environment among Christians today, especially (and, for this essay, most importantly) for Evangelical Christians. While the view does not seem radical today, White argues that this view contributed to the fact that “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen” (White, 2). The dominion viewpoint “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends” (White, 2). Not only that, but “by destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects” (White, 2). Conservative Christians (which includes many, if not most, Evangelicals) often hold “other-worldly attitudes” and focus their minds on things like salvation and heavenly reward (Kearns, 353). Many disregard any consideration of the environment since they believe that God will eventually make a new world (Kearns, 353). While unique compared to other religions, the dominion view of the natural world became dominant in the Western world.

This dominion viewpoint became especially significant after the Industrial Revolution, when the dominant Christian view was used to justify exploiting the environment. In fact, modern science is deeply rooted in Christian theology. White explains, “From the 18th century onward, up to and including Leibnitz and Newton, every major scientist, in effect, explained his motivations in religious terms” (White, 3). White argues that even “despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim” (White, 4). Because Evangelicals place such a significant emphasis on Scripture, many could be described as having an anti-science bias, which can make it difficult to discuss environmental issues with them (Kearns, 354). As Kearns also notes, “The strong linkage of conservative Christianity with capitalism and “the American way” makes it difficult to preach any message critical of economic practices” (Kearns, 360). This linkage is especially clear between the Reagan administration and the religious right in the 1980s, both of which were often criticized by environmental activists (Kearns, 353).

But the dominion viewpoint has become so common in American society that it even extends into secular society. For an example, a Jeep commercial shows Jeeps being driven through natural environments – overcoming and “conquering” nature in a safe metal box complete with air-conditioning and a radio. The commercial does not address the fact that the domination of nature by humanity (and their technology) largely contributes to the destruction of nature. So while the commercial does not include any religious imagery or terminology, the environment is still shown as something to be conquered, enjoyed and exploited by humanity and technology. Another commercial shows Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson, Christians who hold radically different political beliefs, advocating for the protection of the environment. But even while advocating protection of the environment, they display the dominion viewpoint; while they are shown sitting on a beach, they are filmed while wearing suits and sitting on a couch – imposing their human inventions into the natural environment of the beach.

While the dominion view has historically been the dominant view within Christianity, it has faced opposition. Long before our current ecological crisis, Saint Francis, according to White, “tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a sign of the thrust of the soul toward union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his” (White, 5).

Somewhat similar to Francis’ ideas, the view of Christian Stewardship has gained popularity in recent years, partly in reaction to the ecological crisis arguably caused at least in part by the dominion viewpoint. For Christian Stewards, human sinfulness (like arrogance, ignorance and greed, all of which Scripture warns against) caused the ecological crisis, contrasting with Dr. White’s view that the ecological crisis should be blamed on Christianity (Kearns, 354). Perhaps surprisingly, like the dominion viewpoint, Christian stewardship is rooted in Scripture. Countering the dominion argument rooted in Genesis 1:27-28, the idea of Christian stewardship argues that the Bible (specifically Genesis 2:15) mandates that humans should take care of the earth (Kearns, 353). In other words, in order to honor the Creator, they have to honor the earth (the Creator’s Creation).

The rise of Christian environmentalism was largely in response to the rise of secular environmentalism; the Church was largely silent on environmental issues until the last few decades (Kearns, 358). While arguing that Christianity deserves much of the blame for our ecological crisis, Dr. White notes, “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not” (White, 5).

Interestingly, because Evangelicals put such emphasis on scripture, more and more people have accepted the Christian Stewardship view – despite directly contrasting the dominion viewpoint. After all, it is rooted in scripture and, in a way, scriptural basis for a belief is arguably more important than what the belief itself is (Kearns, 353, 356). Rather than Evangelicals having to change their entire belief system, Christian Stewardship “provides the minor retooling of a conservative religious worldview that enables some conservative Christians to respond to the ecological crisis” (Kearns, 360). Rather than citing scientific data to argue in support of conservation, Christian Stewards try to appeal to conservative Christians by arguing that “Noah was the first conservationist and Noah’s Ark presents a clear mandate for preserving species” (Kearns, 357, 361). As Wayne Frair puts it, “The answer lies not in rejection of one Biblical teaching but rather in acceptance of entire Biblical doctrine” (White, 7).

The various views of Evangelical Christians concerning the environment are evidence of how complex and diverse Evangelical Christianity is and can be. The dominion view, rooted in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, considers man to be the master of the natural world. This idea, White argues, is to blame for our ecological crisis. However, to hopefully address such problems, Christianity as a whole does not need to be abandoned. The environmental view of Christian Stewardship, also rooted in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, argues that Christians have a religious duty to protect the natural world. These two viewpoints show that evangelical Christians, even while essentially holding opposite views, agree on the importance of scripture.

How do evangelicals talk to, hear from, or talk about God?

Because the existence of God cannot be definitively proven, it requires faith.  Especially with the onslaught of scientific breakthroughs that have called into question some of the claims in the Bible, faith arguably requires more attention than it did in the past.  However, some surveys have found that up to 95 percent of Americans believe in some sort of a higher power, and even two-thirds of Americans think that angels and demons are active in the world. To strengthen one’s faith, as I will discuss in this essay, many people, especially evangelicals, talk to God, hear from God, and talk about God, (like many figures did in the Bible).

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Converting to the American God: The Transformation of Immigrant Religion to American Religion in Film

Before examining how a religion brought by immigrants can be ‘Americanized,’ we must first understand what a religion is.  Anthropologist Clifford Geertz has defined religion as a system of symbols that acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in people by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and presenting those conceptions with an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.  With this definition, religion as a cultural system can be seen as it is traditionally seen, as well as the less common civil religion, in which religion goes beyond spirituality and rituals into more general and secular society.

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Transforming the World: The Transformations of Malcolm X

Perhaps the shortest and easiest way to summarize the life of Malcolm Little, ‘Detroit Red’, ‘Satan’, Malcolm X, and finally El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz is to quote Ossie Davis, who explained to a magazine why he eulogized Malcolm X: “He had been a criminal, an addict, a pimp, and a prisoner; a racist, and a hater, he had really believed the white man was a devil. But all this had changed. Two days before his death, in commenting to Gordon Parks about his past life he said: ‘That was a mad scene. The sickness and madness of those days! I’m glad to be free of them.’” Or, as Columbia professor Manning Marable subtitled his biography of Malcolm X, it was A Life of Reinvention. In his own Autobiography, Malcolm noted that his “whole life had been a chronology of changes.”  His life molded the world, and his legacy still lives on today, both globally and locally.

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